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Holydays Here and There
by Judy Lash Balint
September 21, 2003

Studies show that certain Jewish rituals are widely observed, even by assimilated or secular Jews. The most popular tradition is attendance at a Passover seder, but a close second is showing up to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services.

If it's no longer to observe the religious tradition of personal stock-taking and repentance surrounding the high holydays, then it's to take part in the gathering of the tribe. A time to see and be seen and catch up on family and community gossip.

There's often more action in the courtyard or driveway of a synagogue than inside.

I grew up in a modern orthodox community in Northwest London in an era when the congregation hired nearby cinemas and church halls to accomodate the "overflow" of three time a year members who wouldn't dream of staying away during Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur. Even if they only sat in their seats for half an hour, they felt they had earned the right to criticize the chazan, the rabbi's speech and the rebbitzen's Yom Tov attire when they arrived home. Still, few drove to shul because of the proximity of a number of synagogues in the area.

As teenagers, we would shul hop. Groups of teens decked out in their holiday best would traipse through the streets of suburban London neighborhoods going from one shul to another to find our friends, flirt and compare our trendy new outfits. Meantime, regular life went on all around us--other kids were in school, the postman delivered mail, shops were open and traffic zoomed past. The atmosphere was distinctly un-Yomtov like.

In the U.S where I spent many years, things were pretty much the same, except here, with larger distances between the far-flung suburban Jews and their temples, driving to shul was the norm.

Diaspora rabbis know that this is the only time of year they're likely to see many shul members, so they try to pack in as many sermons as humanly possible. The speeches are generally variations on a predictable theme--why don't I see you here more often?

High holyday services in the Diaspora tend to be formal affairs with seating charts and an emphasis on how many aliyot to the Torah can be sold to help finance the coming year's budget.

In Israel things are very different. Firstly, in the weeks leading up to the holidays there's an atmosphere of anticipation and preparation. Supermarkets extend their hours and run honey specials. The outdoor markets are filled with seasonal fruits such as scarlet pomegranates almost bursting with seeds, fresh figs and dates. Stalls with Yizkor (memorial) candles and Rosh Hashana cards full of glitter pop up on street corners.

Little work gets done as the general answer to all office questions is "After the holidays.."

On the spiritual plane, even Israel TV gets into the act. On the Saturday night before Rosh Hashana it's traditional to recite the Selichot prayers of penitence. Channel One runs a live broadcast of the prayers of a congregation in Jerusalem's Bayit Vegan neighborhhod.

Ashkenazic Jews generally start the one hour prayers at midnight. Sephardim go through the Selichot ritual in the early morning hours every day from the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul until Yom Kippur. In many neighborhoods the cry of the synagogue gabbai (official) yelling out "Selichot, selichot," at 4:45 a.m every day to waken the faithful marks the beginning of the holyday season.

Regular activities grind to a standstill in the early afternoon before Yom Kippur, as buses stop running and stores close to allow families to eat a festive meal before the start of the fast at around 5pm. The clatter of dishes and pots and pans can be heard through every open window. Although my neighborhood is mixed, made up of religious and secular people, (only two of the six families in my building are observant) it seems from my informal survey that the statistics are accurate--more than 85 per cent of Israeli Jews fast on Yom Kippur.

In fact, non-religious Jews here do more than just fast on the holiest day of the year. My computer fix-it man, a secular American immigrant, tells me he's going to the mikvah (ritual bath) before Yom Kippur. Mark, who never wears a kippah, has never been to the mikveh before, but was persuaded by a friend that this was part of the Yom Kippur preparation. Last year, a group of secular Tel Avivians took part in a Tashlich ceremony at the beach on Rosh Hashanah, symbolically casting their sins into the Mediterranean.

On Kol Nidrei night, the night before Yom Kippur, Israel's streets are traffic free. A tradition among secular Israelis is for kids to use the quiet streets to try out new bikes and roller blades. Families sit on their balconies people-watching with no TV or radio noise to distract them.

Among the observant, almost everyone, men and women, dress in white on Yom Kippur. Men in white shirts and the women in simple blouses or dresses--far from the fancy dress code found in most US synagogues. The atmosphere is quiet and serious. Those who do attend services are regulars and are there to pray.

Israel's equivalent of the three times a year Jew is most likely to be found relaxing on the beach at Tel Aviv.